Category Archives: The Barrel Project

Return of the Barrel: Rotunda’s Revenge

Doughing in (mixing grain and water)

Anyone who has read my blog will undoubtedly have seen one of my frequent links to ‘The Great Barrel Project’ that I undertook with two brothers in brewing, and worse, anyone who has met me will probably have been regaled with the tale of Rotunda the Bourbon barrel, and how she came to be filled with a dark and potent stout called Diogenes. I’m probably like one of those parents who finds it hard to discuss anything other than their child. I think all three of us would agree that it was far and away the high point of our distinguished brewing careers to date though; who can blame us if we talk too much about it? So it’s probably no surprise that after some serious procrastinatin’ and prognosticatin’ we’ve started to refill our beautiful barrel.

We considered a number of beers we could do: perhaps a nice raisin heavy

Kevin’s thermometer, better known as ‘The Geiger Counter’

Belgian ‘dubbel’ style beer? Maybe a barleywine loaded with English hops? In any case it had to be strong, after all it now needs to stand up to not only the original whiskey flavours of the barrel but also a 10% abv stout that was absolutely loaded with black malt. In the end, we decided to brew what we are going to call a ‘Double IPA’ (not that we coined the term, but that we think this is what most appropriately describes our beer. Beer styles are for losers in any case).

Sometimes brewing makes you feel a bit like a drug dealer. It’s calcium chloride flakes for the mash yer’ honour.

To give a brief sketch of the beer itself, the original gravity will be in the region of 1.090 – 1.100, which we hope will ferment to below 1.020, giving us a beer that is something in the region of 9.5% abv. We found with the last brew that time in the barrel increased attenuation, so we should get to our projected 1.018. Our yeast is White Labs’ ‘Super San Diego’ yeast, wlp090. Where malt is concerned, we’ve kept it simple with about 85% pale malt, and the rest being made up by some crystal malt, some Munich, and some sucrose to lighten the body a little. Hopping is high, with flavour additions at 30 minutes and at the knockout, and

The ph of the mash is important so that the enzymes can convert starch to sugar. This one was bang on.

we’re using a tag team of the classic American Cascade, and a hop that has only recently found its way into the homebrewer’s repertoire, Marynka. This Polish hop is cheap, reasonably high in alpha acid at about 8%, but it also has an interesting flavour and aroma. It is a descendent of the classic European hop Saaz, probably crossed with a high alpha hop like

There were so many hops going in to this we didn’t want to clog the tap, so we used some nylon net to form a huge hop bag.

Magnum. I brewed a single hopped ale with it, and at high concentrations I found I was getting a lot of peach, both in flavour and aroma, so let’s hope something like that comes through in this beer. Our software tells us that the IBU (international bittering units) will be high on this, perhaps 180, although tests have shown that these measurements make less sense the more you go over 100.

We got together recently to brew this, and we managed between us to brew 70L. We need a good bit more, since Rotunda is in the region of 214L, but between us, another epic collaborative brewday should do it! We’re not sure what our Double IPA is called yet, so, answers on a postcard. All will be considered, and the winning entry can be sure of a couple of bottles for his or her trouble.

And there were a lot of hops left after we took the net out!

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Three Men and a Little Barrel

Decommissioning the barrel at an undisclosed location in Naas, Southern Eire.

Finally, closure on our Epic project. A little over a month ago, Kev, Peter and I gathered in Naas to bring forth the fruits of our labour, the beer that we now call Diogenes, and described in several previous previous posts . After a gestation period of about 4 months, we each filled two 20L containers to bottle at our leisure, and we bottled the remaining 50L or so there and then, on a freezing day in January.

Diogenes finished at an Epic 11.5% ABV, which means it attenuated even further in the barrel, gaining an extra point ABV since it went in. Tasting it, we were very excited. Obviously putting something in a wooden barrel and leaving it you take your chances, but there was not a hint of funk about the beer. Tasting it alongside a pre-barrel bottle you could discern a real smoothness about it, the angular, almost rough taste points in the pre-barrel beer, the harsh roastiness from the excessive amount of black malt had all vanished. The whiskey was obvious. The oak’s vanilla was a beautiful accompaniment to the imperial stout flavours, and of course in the glass it is a thing of beauty, thick and black and velvet, it stains the glass brown as you swirl it up the sides.  We all agreed (to unashamedly blow our own trumpets) that this may be one of the best beers we have tasted, let alone brewed.

With a beer that clocks in that high, we decided we’d need to reseed the yeast, that is, introduce new yeast at bottling time in case the yeast already in the beer had either dropped out of suspension (perfectly possible after 4 months in the freezing cold), or else had just plain died due to the high alcohol content. If this happened, it would not be possible to bottle condition the beer (i.e. carbonate it), and so it would be flat. We reseeded 2 packets of safale s05 dry yeast for the 50l we bottled on the day, which is a high reseed level, I estimated it was over 3 million cells per ml. It is common practice for the stronger belgian beers to be reseeded at bottling time for this same reason, and 3m cells per ml is on the higher end of the scale, so when I came to bottle my own portion I used considerably less, which seems to have worked nicely. We didn’t want too much carbonation for this beer, as the almost syrupy black consistency is rather pleasant when undercarbonated. I bottled the majority of the beer in small bottles, and a number of them in large bottles which I corked, and I intend to keep for some time. I wasn’t one to muck around with the final product, being a purist, but Kev, who thinks he must be an Irish Sam Calagione or something decided to steep some of his on raspberries, and he says it’s great, but I haven’t had any yet *hint hint*.

We’re so happy to have seen this project through, and even happier that all our effort paid off so well. Everyone who has tasted this beer loves it, and it was a big hit with the other homebrewers at the Beoir January tasting session at the Bull and Castle pub in Dublin. It’s the end of a great adventure, and the only question is, what goes in the barrel next? Answers on a postcard please.

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A Barrel Full of Imperial Stout

Rotunda, Mallet, Ex-Bung

It’s the end of a long journey for our Kentucky bourbon barrel, ‘Rotunda’, and the 175L or so of Imperial Stout that Peter, Kev and I have brewed over the last month or two, a beer that is absolutely delicious even at this early stage, and which is collectively known as ‘Diogenes’. Read the two earlier installments of our audacious barrel project here (getting the barrel) and here (brewing the beer)

Rotunda started life at "Early Times", Kentucky

We all did our bit, and finally the day came where Kev and I drove from North County Dublin to Kildare, with 100L of the blackest stout in history sloshing about on the back seat. Needless to say we drove carefully. It was the day of the All Ireland Final, also notable for a Dimitar Berbatov hattrick against Liverpool. Even though the lads are Man Utd fans, this did little to distract us. Our minds were focussed on the culmination of our Barrel Project. They said we were crazy when we ordered an insane amount of Malt from England. They said it would never work when we told them we were going to brew enough super-strength stout to fill the 200L barrel. But now we’ve done it and the beer will sit there for the coming months, hopefully

One massive box, two carboys, several 20L beer bags, and a corny

undergoing a silent transformation, fusing with the white american oak from our barrel, originally from the Early Times distillery in Kentucky, fusing with the Cooley distillery’s whiskey that aged in it before our beer.

All three of us had been anticipating some degree of mayhem, delivering all that beer into what is already a very heavy barrel surely has its dificulties? Thankfully not, since the day went off without a hitch. This compares very favourably to the last brewday that Kev and I shared, where we perhaps bit off more than we could chew, trying to mash 30KG of grain in a massive plastic barrel. First of all we didn’t get near our mash temperature, it stayed at 55. With the introduction of steam we managed to raise this to 62, still very low. Then the manifold at the bottom of the bucket jammed, and the thing wouldn’t drain. We ended up having to scoop the mash out into smaller more reliable mash tuns, and drain it as best we could. I had to leave at that point, but Kev was to experience further misery, one of the elements on his boiler decided to give up half way through. The blackest brewday I have ever known, I’m still getting over it. Credit to Kev though, he managed to get close to his target OG, and only slightly under the volume he had been aiming for.

"Gang-siphoned"

Peter had already checked that the barrel was watertight before we got there, and in fact, it was still damp with whiskey from months ago when we got it at the Cooley Distillery. The smell was still incredible. We mixed 20L of starsan, and rolled the barrel up and down the path to slosh the starsan around a bit, although this was probably unnecessary since the whiskey was clearly still coating and soaked into the inside of the barrel. Cask strength is much higher than bottle strength, I think I remember the man at Cooley telling us it was in the mid sixties ABV, surely enough to keep most infectious beasties at bay.

A complex medical procedure

We rolled the barrel into the shed and propped it up on a couple of bricks, to raise it a little for when we come to siphon out of it. We began to siphon, this is when I had anticipated difficulty, but it was all fine, we were even able to siphon several of our vessels at once. We tasted some of our beers side by side, there were subtle differences, we then tasted a mixture of all three, and it was superb. The trub (the yeast and other gunk left behind by fermentation) was absolutely revolting, smelled awful, and was thick and gooey. Here’s a picture of some of it on Peter’s finger. Yeuch.

almost full

And that was that. I hammered in the bung (that we had pre drilled to accept an airlock, in case any extra CO2 was produced, and now all we have to do is wait. We may remove a little before christmas, and the rest a little later.

Bung is in

Eugghh

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Brewing for the Barrel

Back in April I described a trip to a distillery, where we bought a whiskey barrel (which we have since christened ‘Rotunda’) with the intention of filling it full of very strong Imperial Stout. That barrel is 200L, but there are three of us

Peter gives praise

filling it. Well today Ladies and Gentlemen, I am please to announce that 40L of the future contents of that barrel have been wrested from non-being into being, by me. Incipit Diogenes! (Diogenes is what I, at least, am referring to the beer as, for reasons explained in the aforementioned post. Peter, on the other hand calls it ‘The Virgin Birth’, but then he’s a deeply religious man)

There will be about 100KG of base malt alone in this brew, and a couple of KG of hops, so we decided to order in bulk. We bought 1 tonne of malt on a Pallet from England (Bairds), the delivery of which was a joyous occasion. Peter (who I told you was deeply religious) offered supplication to the malt gods that Rotunda would prove a fertile vessel. Kev clutched 25KG of black malt wondering what the hell we were getting ourselves in to. Of course we didn’t keep all this malt, we shifted much of it onwards to our friends and fellow brewers at the ICB, but we are certainly malted up for the foreseeable future. This beer is also highly

12KG or so of grain for the barrel brew

hopped, but luckily a friend was passing by Charles Faram the hop merchant in Worcestershire recently, and we were able to buy some Kilos of Magnum and Cascade at wholesale prices. My living room smells divine, and I’m wandering around in a hoppy daze.

So with our ingredients sorted, we set about formulating a recipe. It looked to be the case that even with only 20L batches, there would be over 12KG of malt in the mash, which I already discovered is my coolerbox’s limit. We came up with a fairly standard Imperial Stout recipe, containing black malt, chocolate malt, and roast barley, along with the grainy beauty of amber malt. For bittering, we went with the cheapest high alpha hop, which at the moment is the Hallertau hybrid Magnum. Magnum is also a good all purpose bitterer for things like IPAs, so it won’t go to waste. For flavour, we decided to use cascade, although not normally associated with this style. Apart from the malt, there will be flavours from the barrel, the oak and the whiskey, and so anything less assertive might have gotten lost. Cascade is normally associated with pale beers, but actually the Americans put it in stouts and porters all the time.  Also the more traditional Fuggles and Goldings are quite expensive at the moment, and since we bought the cascade in bulk we wanted something versatile that we could use in plenty of other brews. We are

Monster Mash, mashing at the limits.

pragmatists after all.

Yeast is another important factor- with a beer this big, it’s important to pitch lots of healthy yeast, so two weeks ago I brewed a fairly standard porter, with an OG of about 1.050, and I pitched in a packet of Wyeast 1084 ‘Irish Ale’ yeast, the classic stout yeast that is supposed to have originated in a certain well known brewery down the road. So yesterday armed with copious amounts of malt, hops and yeast I was ready to brew the monster.

The plan was to do two 20L brews back to back, I got up early and got going. I added calcium chloride flakes to the mash in order to get that malty profile that we need. Our recipe involved Pale Ale Malt as a base, with roasted Barley, Amber, Chocolate and Black Malts. We used Magnum to bitter, and Cascade at the end. Our yeast was the classic stout yeast, WYeast 1084 “Irish Ale”

 

The Runoff

The grain bill was huge, and difficult to stir as I was doughing in, there just wasn’t much space. I think it was the philosopher Wittgenstein who said in Philosophical Investigations that “The limits of my mash are the limits of my world”, or something like that, and now I see what he meant. I mashed it with about 30L which means a ratio of about 2.5/1, which should be ok.The runoff came in under the expected gravity though, even though with a grain bill this size we were banking on lower than normal efficiency (65%). I think I worked out that the efficiency must have only been 60%. My OG for the first batch came in at about 1.100. The second was about the same but I had a little more wort than expected, 22L. When both brews were in the fermenter the OG was 1.095, which is a bit below target, but then I’m confident that my beer will ferment lower than 1.029. I have a feeling I’ll get closer to 1.020, which means we should be close to the projected ABV, which is the theoretical limit of the yeast anyway, at about 12% alcohol it begins to die. We’ll just have to wait and see how low it goes! I have plans to improve efficiency next time. I don’t think it was a sparging issue as I fly sparged the second batch and it didn’t make a difference. My runoff could be too fast, also the tap is at one end of the mash, which could be causing uneven drainage, so I’m going to run a pickup tube into the middle of the mash tun. We

A black and beautiful torrent

have another couple of goes at this to get it right.

I did get a second beer our of these mashes though, a stout at OG 1.053, which is pretty good for second runnings! It also explains where all the excess sugar went, and it is some compensation for the poor efficiency of the first brew.  It will also serve to keep the yeast in motion, for the second batch of this next week.

As well as pitching enough yeast, good aeration is paramount, but I find that I get plenty of aeration by just opening the tap and letting the jet of black ambrosia shoot out the two feet or so down to the fermenter, and lots of good aerating splashing occurs. Fermentation was already vigorous when I got up the next morning, after only 7 hours. As you can see, there was already a thick 3 inch head of Krauesen formed. When I got back that evening, there had clearly been a bid for freedom from the stout,

After only 7 hours! I should have known what was coming…

but thankfully not much had escaped. It really made a mess of the fermenting box, the whole lid and sides were covered with gunk. I cleaned and sanitised the lid and the top of the box, and replaced it to finish fermenting. After this furious fermentation I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t ferment to a reasonably low final gravity. More reports when we have them!

“It Came from The Fermenter…”

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Rotunda Joins the Family

I am a craftsman. At the moment the craft that occupies me most is brewing, but I am also obsessed with instrument building, and carpentry

Make for the stairs Peter! Daleks can't get up stairs!

in general. People look at a guitar and think “that must be difficult”, but I have built instruments and studied their construction closely, and to my mind it is the coopers that are the forgotten alchemists of wood. They take some rough oak, and without measurement or form they fashion a vessel that holds the same amount of liquid each time, and what’s more it holds liquid, without glue or any type of sealant. They judge by the wisdom of their eyes alone, they gouge and plane, they steam and bend. They hammer the iron hoops that hold the staves in place.

Diogenes ponders how next to piss off the plebs

Brewing is a hobby of course. By day, and at times by night, I engage in far more sensible pursuits, I’m writing a PhD in philosophy. Ha! could there be a link between philosophy and cooperage? But of course. Diogenes, legendary Cynic lived in a barrel. Probably not a wooden one, but something more like a barrel shaped cellar. Nonetheless he has gone down in history as the man who lived in the barrel. Not only that but he used to masturbate in the marketplace, just to show his contempt for civil society. He is a personal philosophical hero of mine. The humble barrel has immense philosophical pedigree, as though its very form straddles the gulf between theoretical and practical reason!

But my extolling of the cooper’s virtue eventually relates back to brewing. Some brewing friends and I have decided to fill a whiskey barrel fully of extra strong stout, and age it in the oak for several months. to this end Peter and I visited our local distillery to purchase a barrel, which Peter promptly christened “Rotunda”. For the Dorty Foredners amongst you the name of one of the main maternity hospitals in Dublin is the Rotunda. Furthermore the Barrel has of course a pleasing, almost pregnant fullness to it, and as Peter pointed out it will soon give birth to a beautiful strong black stout, weighing in at about 10% abv.

The barrel is originally a Kentucky Bourbon barrel, US health and safety laws stipulate that food vessels cannot be reused. Bourbon barrels are used once and then sold to Europe, notably here and Scotland, for whiskey aging. The hold 53 US Gallons, or about 200L. That’s going to mean about 4 or so batches of stout, at least. Peter, Kevin and I are going to have to brew flat out to fill Rotunda.

The guy in charge of the barrel store was extremely helpful, and really friendly. When we told him we were brewers he said immediately “I’ll find ye a good one, just emptied”. We chatted to him about our plans for ages, and he was very encouraging. When we were there he was waiting for a truck to turn up to take the whiskey elsewhere for bottling, the barrels sat over a trough so they could drain fully before being filtered ofcharcoal and pumped into a large holding vessel. He took a glass and scooped it into the trough and we had a sip. It burned, but in a nice way. “Cask strength” he told us. “About 67%”.

We rolled Rotunda to the car. Oddly, the Renault Laguna seems to have been built with this barrel in mind. It fit perfectly in the boot! Oddly they’ve never based an advertising campaign around that. A busload of German tourists filed past as we were documenting this proud moment on film. The bus driver asked how much a barrel of whiskey cost. He seemed disappointed when we told him it was empty.

We took a tour (self guided) of the distillery. There were many similarities with a brewery, the mashing process for one seems identical. The old copper vessels also looked like we could have put them to good use!

When we got back to the car the smell was divine. I had images of the police pulling us over and as the window rolled down, the smell wafting out. “Honestly hofficer, it was empty when we got it!”

More updates when we manage to fill Rotunda up.

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